It’s a Terrible Life

The approach of Christmas and then New Year’s Eve prompts us to reflection—when we’re not hurrying through last-minute shopping, decorating, baking, wrapping, hosting, volunteering, and the like. And that reflection is often helped by…movies.

George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge come readily to mind as secular saints of the holiday. Neither It’s a Wonderful Lifenor A Christmas Carol make more than the slightest reference to the Christian elements of Christmas. But they both pose a fundamental challenge worth us all considering once more: What’s really going on?

George Bailey thinks he knows what’s gone on in his life: a vanishing hope for adventure; a horizon that has steadily shrunk from a world of travel and excitement down to a small town, a precarious business, a dilapidated house, and the constrictions of domesticity. Frustrated by the latest disappointing failure of the people he has sacrificed his dreams to save, he attempts one last gesture of desperate service—and an angel rescues him.

Clarence rescues him from suicidal drowning—a fitting image for how George feels about what his life has come to. And Clarence does so by showing him, through a dark fantasy, how broad and bright and bold and beautiful his life really has been.

Ebenezer Scrooge is equally confident that he knows what’s gone on in his life: a mounting personal fortune, a flourishing set of investments, and a position of grudging respect among his peers.

It takes not one, but four, spirits, to show Scrooge how wrong he is. Invitations to participate charitably in the lives of others he previously has waved away angrily as parasitical threats to his well-deserved riches. Opportunities to “interfere for good,” as his old (really old) friend Jacob Marley puts it, have been scrupulously avoided in the name of “minding my own [wait for it] business.”

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